President Vladimir Putin has been in power longer than any Russian ruler since Stalin. A modern day tsar and reportedly the richest man in the world, the Russian strongman has engineered a power grab to maintain his iron grip until 2036. Robert Service, a leading Kremlin expert, cautions not to overestimate the former KGB officer’s strategic abilities. He tells Die Weltwoche, “We too often accord to Putin far too much respect.”
Last week, former cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova of the United Russia Party took to the floor of the state Duma. The first woman to fly into space offered an amendment to allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to remain in power after his fourth term officially ends in 2024. Following her speech which garnered raucous parliamentary applause, Putin addressed the lawmakers: “The president is a guarantor of security of our state, its internal stability and evolutionary development. We have had enough revolutions.”
The Duma dutifully ratified this revolutionary constitutional change. Putin may remain on his gilded Kremlin throne until 2036.
What are his motives? Who belongs to his circle of power? What would happen to Russia if the 67-year-old leader was assassinated? We ask Robert Service, one of the world's leading Kremlinologists, for answers. The Oxford historian has written a series of sweeping biographies of the Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, and of Nicholas II, Russia’s last tsar. Service opposes current Western efforts to demonize Putin. His most recent work, "Kremlin Winter," is regarded, “a triumph in nuance and a timely antidote to our present ‘Russia fever’”.
Service methodically examines the famously inscrutable Russian psyche, unravels the former super power’s complicated history, and dissects Putin's continuing hold on power. Service warns that Putin’s ambition brings considerable risks for Mother Russia. Uncertainty over his succession could trigger an "all-powerful struggle at the top of Russian politics."
China’s Xi Jinping had his “Xi forever” moment last year. Now, Putin got his own “Vladimir forever” moment. Professor Service, will Putin likely be in the Kremlin “annoying the Western world” to eternity, as one western commentator put it?
The period of playing a pretend game about ‘will he or will he not accept another term of the presidency?’ is now finished. Putin has edged closer towards making a bid for that extra term. He's done it in a rather cautious constitutional fashion by saying that the constitution as a whole should not be changed, but that some kind of legal maneuver would suit him better so long as the Constitutional Court approves of it.
The scene at the Duma when it reset the current term limits looked as if Putin was begged to stay in power.
He's aware of the delicacy of the proposal. He doesn't want to be seen to be grabbing power. He wants to have power forced upon him. Who can tell how long he will want to stay in power? There is no way of telling at the moment. It may not be that he desires power solely for his own personal gain. I do think that we have to bear in mind that his position at the moment is one where he can control all the various political and economic factions in the leadership. Were it to become obvious at this point, four years before he steps down from office, that there's going to be a battle for the succession, then there could be an almighty struggle at the top of Russian politics.
I think that he wants to avoid this. Those who aren't sure of winning or have good reason to think that they would lose, they have an interest in sustaining him in power. There are divisions inside in the ruling elite, and some of its members are pushing him towards staying in power.
Do you see potential successors that one day could take over from Putin? Perhaps among the military security establishment, the “Siloviki”? What about Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. Or the new Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin?
It's very dangerous if you're the supreme ruler in an autocratic system to name your successor. Immediately discontented elements start giving you trouble. Putin has been very, very careful over the last 20 years not to name or anoint to an obvious successor. In this, he's very similar to many autocratic rulers of the past. The only ones who can avoid this situation are hereditary monarchs. There the next ruler is obvious from the law of their succession. There is no law of succession in Russia.
Furthermore, there's a huge degree of informality about how the successor is chosen. The Duma doesn't have anything to do with it. The electorate don't really have a choice of whom they want. The successor is anointed by the last president. This is what happened with Yeltsin. This is likely to be what happens with Putin.
What will happen if Putin gets sick or gets killed? Allegedly, there have been at least five attempts to kill him since he has been in the power. One incident is well documented.
If Putin were to fall under a Moscow bus, not that he gets anywhere near a bus. If he were to fall under a bus, then the existing rivalries inside the ruling elite would break out into open conflict. The ruling elite has been shaped by Putin. He has always kept a sprinkling of economic liberals inside it. Although there are no longer any political liberals in the ruling elite, there remain differing views about how to run the economy. How far to make the state utterly dominant over the economy? How much freedom to give to market economics? This is a really serious division. Those with an interest in continuing to run state controlled companies at the expense of upcoming private companies, they do not want to lose their supremacy. They will fight to the bitter end to secure their authority.
If Putin suddenly was removed from power, there would be no anointing of a successor. In those circumstances, there would be a very tumultuous battle.
Putin’s approval ratings remain high. He still reaches up to 70% support across the country. The question is why can't the opposition get anything done? Is it drastically repressed or does it simply have no popular backing?
Yes, it's a really interesting question because there's a contrast between Putin's personal popularity and the popularity of the policies that he has implemented and the results of those policies in social inequality and social injustice. There is a great deal of discontent in Russian society. Putin as a ruler has had to make drastic accommodations to discontented opinion. For example, with the pensioners two years ago when he tried to enforce a longer working age, pensioners and near-pensioners took to the streets against him. There is a tacit social contract in Russia that at least a minimum of social welfare will continue to be supplied by the state.
The reason why out-and-out political liberals have not made much headway is that liberalism in the 1990s was associated with the wild capitalism that was introduced under Boris Yeltsin. The word democracy itself became a term of near abuse, and political liberals paid the price for the failure to introduce a fairer form of capitalism than continues to exist. The irony is that Putin's group, who are the most unfair capitalists in Europe, have benefited from this feature of public opinion. It really is an irony of recent Russian history that the victims of this process of decommunization are the liberals who want a fairer form of capitalism, and it is fairness that is demanded in the bulk of the opinion surveys that are done in today’s Russia.
The fact is that the Russian people have a long memory. They have turned increasingly to a ruling group and a ruler who provides a degree of certainty and stability. They and their parents can remember the huge instabilities of the period from the late 1980s through to the late 1990s. It was a really grievous period for most Russians most of the time because they suffered a lasting depression, a dozen years of economic depression, and they suffered the consequences of that depression.
Putin's net worth is a big mystery. According serious reports, he is the richest man in the world. How did he accumulate his wealth?
Putin has accumulated wealth in the way that everyone in the ruling elite accumulates wealth, by access to the levers of power and by use of police, judges and even criminals against bothersome critics. Presidents, premiers and ministers in Russia have every opportunity to aggrandize themselves in material terms. They make little attempt to disguise the fact that this is the kind of Russia that has emerged from communism. Putin isn't alone in taking the chance to become super-wealthy. Indeed he has been clever enough to make sure that he doesn't make himself into an exception. All the members of the ruling elite and the dominant business elite, all of them have made their money by unsavoury procedures.
They are all complicit with each other in this way of running the society, so that there's no one in the elite who has completely clean hands who could stand before the population or the electorate of Russia and say, "Look at me. I'm different from all the rest. I can be trusted to run things differently." There are many cases of people close to Putin who have built huge palaces in the provinces with swimming pools, helipads, great walls and guard houses around estates which couldn't possibly be afforded on the modest salaries that are accorded to state functionaries and elected politicians.
Yet, the private life of Putin himself is largely unknown. He keeps his two adult daughters away from politics. There is hardly any news about his two grandchildren. His former wife, Lyudmila, has vanished from the public. Putin is said to have a new girlfriend, the ex gymnast Alina Kabaeva. If true, he's hiding her very well. Are these the tight lipped instincts of a former KGB officer following the rule: Private information is power to the enemy?
Yes, I think it is the case that the FSB (main successor agency to the USSR’s KGB) and the other intelligence security agencies are very assiduous in protecting the personal reputation of the president. One of the dangers for Putin lies in stepping down from the presidency. When Yeltsin did the same thing, he spent a year trying to discover which of the hardmen, and he only looked at hardmen in 1999, would not only be tough enough to handle the Russian presidency - and it's a really difficult job - but also be trustworthy in regard to disallowing moves against Yeltsin in retirement or against Yeltsin's family. Putin had a deserved reputation as a personally loyal politician, so he got the job. He was tough, he was clever and he was personally loyal.
Now, who in that group now ruling Russia can Putin choose to fulfill the same function in regard to himself? It's a really difficult search. Better by far therefore, to stay on in power than risk the possible consequences of his successor deciding that there might be advantage in exposing the abuses of power and privilege that Putin has engaged in.
Putin has been the longest serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin. He seized power two decades ago. Yet, some of the most basic questions about his personality remain unanswered, especially the question: What drives Putin? Is it to stay in power for the sake of power, or does he indeed want the best for Russia as he claims?
That's a very good question. I think he does want the best for Russia, and he sees the best for Russia through his favourite prism of patriotism and national greatness and national dignity and the need for the power vertical, which involves a system whereby the Kremlin’s commands are obeyed at the lower levels of the administration. Above all, he wants a Russia that is no longer humiliated in the rest of the world and a Russia that exercises global authority. One of the few occasions when he reacted against a specific statement by an American president was when Barack Obama in 2014 said that Russia was after all merely 'a regional power'. Putin took enormous offence of this because he has spent 14 years trying to prove the opposite. With the Crimea annexation, he thought he had proved it. I think he does have a vision of Russia, it's not just power for his own personal sake.
What is Putin’s vision?
The personal and the political are closely connected. As happens with many rulers who have been in power for a long time, he sees no distinction between his own personal security in power and the kind of vision that he has for Russia. He sees himself as being crucial for the realization of that vision, which means that he has every incentive to stay on in power. I don't think he just wants power for his own sake. And it is important to recognize that the sort of objectives that he possesses for Russia were already being expressed by several ex-KGB leaders in the 1990s, and moreover, by a lot of the other members of the political elite in Russia who wanted a stricter, more authoritarian and more nationalist set of policies than Yeltsin was providing. So Putin’s ideas are not the exception.
He's the typical expression of a long frustrated feelings in the 1990s political elite. And 20 years later, after coming to the presidency, he's still very comfortable with these ideas. He's not an original thinker. His grip on Russian history is not outstanding. He grew up and was trained in the Soviet system, so he comes out with platitudes about Russia’s future greatness. But he’s not a communist and his ideas on what is required for Russia to be ‘great’ are unsurprisingly constant.
You're a distinguished biographer of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Romanov tsars. Are there aspects of Putin’s character that remind you of key historic Russian figures, or is he a completely new and different person?
I think it is clearly the case that there are some aspects of the Soviet past that have been transmitted through to Vladimir Putin. But it's wrong to think that it's only the Soviet past though that's at work. He also looks back fondly to the tougher, more warlike Tsars of the 18th and 19th centuries. He sees himself consciously in a tradition of those rulers, Soviet and pre-Soviet, who made Russia stand tall in the world. As for his relationship with Stalin, well, Putin did go to Katyn and he did kneel down and express his regrets for the murder of thousands of Poles by Stalin.
As for Lenin, I have never yet come across a single statement of approval of Lenin coming out of the mouth of Vladimir Putin. Quite the reverse, he blamed him for the constitutional settlement of the 1920s that led to the possibility of the breakup of the USSR.
The main point is that Putin has sympathy with rulers Soviet and pre-Soviet who have made Russia stand tall again. And he sees himself in that sort of way.
In your book “Kremlin Winter” you describe an interesting scene. American film maker and frequent critic of United States, Oliver Stone, was shooting an extended documentary on Putin. Putin takes him to a hockey stadium. He parades in the changing room in full kit. But instead of showing praise and fascination, Stone looks at the short figure all padded up and exclaims, “Mighty Mouse!” Putin swallows his dismay. But later the Kremlin makes sure “Mighty Mouse” doesn’t make the cut. Size matters for Putin. He is only 5’ 6”. Would you say Putin suffers from a Napoleon complex? And if yes, how does he compensate for it?
Well, I'm not for sure he's too hung up about his shortness of height. To make a judgement, we'd need to know a lot more about his upbringing. It was certainly tough on the streets of Leningrad if you were slight of stature. It’s possible that explains his lifelong self-application to the martial arts. It is also known that he places himself very carefully in public when he has to meet tall foreign statesmen. This is unavoidable in some occasions. But I think it would be wrong to think that his aggressive promotion of Russia can be traced back to some psychological inadequacy.
I think it has much more to do with the mentality of a Russian who thinks that his country was humiliated by what happened from the late 1980s onwards. He regrets perestroika. He was in Dresden during perestroika. He came back to a country that appeared to him in utter chaos. He, therefore, didn't appreciate the liberating effects of Gorbachev's democratization of Soviet society. He looked on it completely in the opposite way. He saw nothing but chaos and humiliation. That humiliation went on through the 1990s. That's where I think it all comes from. It comes from a broad Russian mentality that is shared broadly by members of the political elite, the business elite, and Russians generally. That explains why even now he continues to hit the 60% mark in the opinion polls. It's an extraordinary achievement after 20 years.
He has made extraordinary achievements on the global stage, too. A lot of analysts say he plays his cards extremely well. He comes across as a sly fox. Do you agree that he's a master strategist?
Well, I think it has to be said that he's a very clever politician. He prepares himself extremely well for meetings with foreign statesmen. We don't actually know what has gone on in his summit meetings with President Trump because the only sources for their discussions are Russian sources, so that there is a reverse form of secrecy to the normal one of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. In that earlier time it was the American side that revealed what went on at some meetings. Now it's the Russian side. At the moment we have a very, very limited, self-serving delivery of information.
What we do know is that Putin can also be crude. He has often annoyed and unduly offended Chancellor Merkel. He doesn't always behave as smoothly as is in his interest, but he certainly prepares himself well and works hard at things. He certainly seems to work harder at things than some world leaders do. Where there are gaps in his knowledge, he seeks to fill them. He's also got 20 years of experience. He's got more experience even than the German Chancellor who's also been in power for many, many years. There is nobody else on the world political scene who has had long a ruling experience. He's seen a lot of changes, lived through them and had plenty of time to think through the implications of different possibilities. I still, though, think he's made some really terrible choices in world politics, whether or not he's well thought of, or at least respected by other leaders.
The invasion and annexation of Crimea is one thing: even from a Realpolitik viewpoint this has brought more harm than advantage to Russia. The other thing was the decision to embrace the Chinese than to play the Chinese off against the Americans, which is what his rhetoric suggests the Russians should be doing now because he is constantly talking about the world being a multipolar one now, where Russia is one of the great poles, China is another, India another, and America another.
Instead of that, he has opted for a single quasi-alliance at the expense of all the other potential ones. I think that's an absolutely catastrophic choice from the Realpolitik viewpoint. I think we too often accord to Putin far too much respect, and probably greater fear than is appropriate. Russia has an economy that is still not diversified enough to make Russia into a technological power. Without being a global technological power, you can't be a genuine world power, so that Putin’s apparent mastery of negotiating tactics is a mask for a set of foreign policy choices that are disastrous for the achievement of his own stated long-term objectives.
That was what my book “Kremlin Winter” was seeking to show because I think in the West, we too often think that the only relationship that really counts is the Russia-West relationship. In a multipolar world, with the rise of China, that's transparently not the case. Many Russians, when you talk to them privately, make it very, very obvious that the country they most fear is not America, it's China.
Did Putin have a preference in the 2016 US presidential elections, or was he just trying to sow doubt and confusion generally?
I think Putin's administration and their hirelings outside the administration had an interest in seeking to make it easy for Trump to pursue his candidacy and to win the election. I think it's far more important to recognize that Hillary Clinton organized her campaign more ineffectively than Donald Trump did, and much as the Russians interfered, I'm not convinced that their interference was the decisive factor. It is definitely a factor, though, in Russian-American relations and the Americans have difficulty in retaliating because the results of a presidential election in Russia would not be affected by American hackers because the result of a Russian presidential election is always foretold, forecastable!
If the race in 2020 comes down to Trump versus Joe Biden, which of the two do you think Putin prefers?
I don't think there's any doubt that the Russian authorities would massively prefer the known Trump to the semi-known Biden. The last three or four years of Trump's political activity have included no serious occasion when he has himself attacked Vladimir Putin. The exact opposite is the case.
It's true that American economic sanctions have been applied but when they were applied President Trump made it clear that he was signing legislation with the greatest reluctance. Now, who in the Kremlin in those circumstances would choose anyone over Donald Trump to support in the next election? I don't think there's any doubt that Putin wants Trump to succeed in gaining a further term. Just as Putin wants a further term for himself.
Robert Service, 72, is a British historian and leading Kremlin expert. He was until 2013 a professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford and a senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Service has written a series of magisterial biographies on Soviet and Russian leaders.